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Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future

About the author
John C Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim scholar-in-residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

A personal preamble


I have long been a Thomas Jefferson fanatic. While, like all sensible Americans, I have a sneaking respect for Alexander Hamilton, and am aware that we live in his world and not that of the sage of Monticello, Jefferson for me was always the poetry of the American revolution, if Hamilton was the prose.

Politically, Jefferson seemed to stand for what I as a Republican in the Dwight Eisenhower tradition believed in: a limited role for a small but accountable and effective government, the primacy of individual liberty over the nanny state, balanced budgets, local control of as much as possible (what Europeans call "subsidiarity"), and the promise that an educated people would safeguard the republic, forcing an inherently overly-secret institution to divulge what it was doing, so that free men could vote knowing what their government was up to.

This poetic vision of what America should stand for, begun in my childhood with my first visit to Jefferson's majestic home, Monticello, has been with me for the rest of my life. I live in Virginia, own a farm, and as my friends say on the weekend I play at being the third president, working hard but mismanaging my agrarian affairs, just as he did, down the road in Charlottesville.

For the better part of a year, I saved money to buy the famous Houdon bust of Jefferson, to put in my library. When it finally arrived, it was one of the more satisfying moments of my life. I placed it on a pedestal looking out over the Virginia countryside. For me this was a magical thing. Owning the bust was a way of keeping faith with my ancestors, with the things they believed in, with the ideas that inspired the world.

Not long after, I was walking down my dirt road on a Sunday morning to get my copy of the Washington Post. On this particular Sunday, I opened up the postbox and above the fold were the pictures of Abu Ghraib. I sat looking at them, staring with a kind of unbelieving horror. For, as Thomas E Ricks has made clear in his excellent book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, if we honestly think that this is the work of three or four very confused corporals, then we are sadly mistaken. If we are going to declare to the world that we are going to continue to stand for the things that Jefferson embodied, it is not that we need to reach that almost unattainable goal.

It remains essential that we have such lofty goals for ourselves and the rest of the world; it does not necessarily mean we will reach them but in the striving we will leave humanity a far better place. That is not hypocrisy. But what the Bush administration has been doing with warrantless wiretaps, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, secret prisons, renditions, and an almost limitless view of the powers of the presidency, is.

On that day, I stared at my bust of Jefferson and began talking to it, saying: "We will do better". We must not let the terrorists imperil, as the George W Bush administration has, the very things that make us different, special, or as Abraham Lincoln said, "the last, best, hope of earth". It is because the American right are patriotic, because they feel such a pride and kinship with both what America has been and what it has stood for, because they connect with the vast interior of the continent through these qualities, that now is the time to end the utopian neo-conservative experiment, with American conservatives leading the way. For we simply have to be better than this.

The moment for action

Neo-conservative thinking has never existed comfortably in the Republican Party. Irving Kristol, in On Neoconservatism, eloquently traces some of the wellsprings and the political journey of the movement. Some of its founders started as Trotskyists (which explains the continued neo-conservative belief in permanent revolution, though this time for democracy), were betrayed by Stalin, becoming ardent cold warriors in the Democratic Party.

When the party became a national joke following the murder of Robert Kennedy and the rise of the laughably unelectable (he won one state in the electoral college) George McGovern, the neocons left the Democrats, even though they shared a certain Rousseau-like utopian view of the planet. What the neo-conservatives could not stomach was cultural hippy elements in the party. Their patent lack of seriousness terrified neocons - meaning that, in their view, at least the Republicans were serious about the most important issue, fighting communism, even if they were wrong to restrict the role of the state. Republicans were grown-ups, which beat working with a bunch of hippies who had alienated most of moderate America.

This was the crucial break, and it gives me hope today. For the neocon Gaullist agenda - big government (President Bush has spent more money per capita than Lyndon B Johnson, with Iraq and Afghanistan costing $400-$500 billion, and the meter still running), a big presidency, and a corresponding decrease in civil liberties, all in the service of running an empire - is in ideological terms deeply troubling to many in the Republican base.

One of my favorite exercises is to leave the hothouse environment of Washington and ask traditional Republican voters around the country some honest questions about what they want. My own response goes something like this: "Well, at least the neocons are honest. They want to run an empire, which to do well will lead to massive increases in government spending, budget deficits, a further rise in the power of the federal government, especially the presidency, and the possible reinstitution of a draft if things get tough" After a few seconds of stunned silence, invariably someone in the crowd asks if they heard me correctly, followed by someone politely asking if I've lost my mind.

This corrective power at the grassroots level mirrors the fact that while no doubt bureaucratically successful, the neocons have never been a good fit for the "grand old party" (GOP). They were tolerated both by the rest of the party (though even then with private but profound misgivings) and indeed by the majority of democrats during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But as GOP strategist Ed Rollins put it: "Iraq is 90% of the administration's problem in the polls".

Neither realists in the Republican Party nor the Democrats opposed the president over Afghanistan or the "war on terror" (rightly I still think) when his approval rating was 80% or more. With it now in the 30% range and Iraq an undoubted mess, the political vultures in both parties are gathering around a very wounded administration. After Iraq, saying "trust me" just does not work anymore, for both ideological and political reasons. For those of us on the right in the political world, the time will never be better to rise up.

A very un-academic argument

A number of years ago a leading and very intelligent neocon said something to me (off the record) that I've thought about a great deal since. When I asked what would happen to his movement if Iraq did not go according to plan, he said chillingly: "Well, then I will say its all the president's fault, it was the execution and not the premises of the neocon agenda that let us down, that all is needed is a more competent president and team, and we will regroup around John McCain, who many of us favored in the first place."

I responded by noting that he sounded like a certain kind of very tired European intellectual, who was forever mouthing the mantra that communism was a great idea badly executed, rather than hitting upon the truth that it was a god-awful idea poorly executed. I also said that with friends like the staunch realist Senator Chuck Hagel around him, not to count on the fact that Senator John McCain would be a pawn in the neocons' hands.

My neo-conservative colleague ended by grinning and saying: "Exactly. You will say the problem is both delivery and ideology, while I will say nothing is wrong that the right man cannot fix. And that is not an academic argument. That will be an argument for the soul of the party." As I've said many times, the problem with the neocons is not that they are dumb, as this spot-on bit of analysis attests to. Rather it is that, like the Kennedy inner circle during the time of Vietnam, they are smart and so very wrong.

But in terms of political analysis, the above conversation of some years ago cannot be bettered. These two competing narratives will be played out through the Republican presidential primaries, which (regardless of the final electoral outcome) will be the most important since Eisenhower bested Senator Robert Taft, ensuring that Harry Truman's view of containment would be adopted by the majority of both parties.

A victory by a neocon candidate in the Republican primaries would force the realist right to either accept its minority status in the party, join with the Democrats as the lesser of evils (much as the neocons once bolted the Democratic Party), or try to organise - with like-minded Democrats in terms of foreign policy - a viable third party challenge. The stakes simply could not be higher.

The grand alternative: ethical realism

One reason for writing the book I've just finished with my friend and colleague Anatol Lieven - Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World - was to provide a coherent intellectual alternative to neo-conservatism. Anatol and I went back to the bipartisan days of the Truman-Eisenhower presidencies, when the left under former vice-president Henry Wallace (who wished to appease Stalin) was seen off, just as the right under General Douglas MacArthur (who wished to use nuclear weapons in Manchuria during the Korean war) was similarly discredited, politically and intellectually.

It is this moderate, Burkean, bi-partisan grouping, which lasted until the dying days of the cold war, that is so lacking today. Instead, as Anatol and I note, a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland version of this earlier high point in American foreign-policy history has wretchedly played itself out. It has five disabling flaws, which we dissect.

First, many Democrats echo my neocon friend's line, saying President Bush is to blame, rather than the state building - at the barrel of a gun - an agenda that he has propounded. In other words, many Democrats fault Republicans for not going to as good colleges as they did, while not questioning the overall philosophical thrust of the neo-conservative democracy-promotion agenda. We look at what happened in the late 1940s and early 1950s for both political and ideological inspiration, as a toolkit for resurrecting a sensible bi-partisan foreign policy.

Second, Anatol and I try to stop the neo-conservatives from rewriting history. Along with such liberal hawks as Peter Beinart, they have tried to say that they are the true heirs of Truman. This is simply not the case. The key point here concerns preventive war, the Bush administration's tool of choice in Iraq. For, contrary to the obfuscations of the administration (and it is shameful that the press have not held them accountable on this point), the Bush administration has not indulged in pre-emption, but rather advocated preventive war in Iraq, in line with failed intellectuals like James Burnham and failed politicians like General MacArthur and Senator Taft.

Given how the Truman-Eisenhower team was proven largely right about the cold war, and the MacArthurs of this world were proven wrong, it is easy to see why the Bush administration and Democratic hawks would not want us to see this intellectual sleight of hand. But see it we do.

For no one is questioning that pre-emption is part of a state's right to self-defence, enshrined in the United Nations charter. In 1967, Israel, on the eve of an imminent attack by the Egyptian air force the next day, struck first. So far, so good. But no one has said that Saddam Hussein, in his weakened state, was about to strike anyone. Rather, the logic went: "Saddam is a bad, bad guy. The sanctions regime (thanks to the Europeans) is falling apart. He has threatened us in the past. We should take him out when he is weak, rather than waiting for him to become strong once again."

While this makes perfect sense as an immediate calculation, it certainly is not pre-emption. For preventive wars are wars of choice. And the problem is that if they are accepted, very quickly we will live in the jungle. If the United States can take out Saddam, what is to stop the Indians and the Pakistanis settling scores over Kashmir, the Russians regaining territory and influence in the Caucasus, or the Chinese lunging for Taiwan?

All these nuclear states might just take the risk, justifying their actions in terms of the American adventure in Iraq. This heedless obsession with tactics rather than with strategy is what separated Truman from MacArthur in Korea. But, frighteningly, it is the neocons and their hawkish but tacit Democratic allies who are following the preventive teachings of Burnham, even after they were proven conclusively wrong so many years ago.

Third, we lay out what the alternate philosophy of ethical realism would look like, concentrating on the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan, as well as the teachings of Edmund Burke, Thomas Aquinas, and Max Weber. Five core principles - humility, prudence, study, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind", and patriotism - are at the core of the ethical realist creed. Following such a different philosophical course leads, inevitably, to very different foreign-policy outputs.

Fourth, if the Truman-Eisenhower era provides us with a recent political example of what to do, the British empire in the 19th century, and the "great capitalist peace" that underlay its success, provides a historical precedent. Britain then, like the US today, was first among equals in the world, but it certainly was not alone. Other great powers - Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Japan - at different points came to nip at London's heels. And yet for a century, from the dusk settling on the fields of Waterloo in 1815 until the "great war" of 1914 (the Crimean war excepted), there was no general European conflict.

The British achieved this outcome by creating common goods that benefited them, but also the other great powers: protecting the sea lanes, sharing in the benefits of trade, building the largest navy and the most vibrant economy for much of the period, and using "soft power" (having Indian princes sent to be educated in England, and winning respect for British cultural norms as well as the inevitable resentment).

These attributes are curiously similar to America's position in the world today. It is precisely such a great capitalist peace (now that all the major powers have embraced the capitalist system) that must be reconstructed today, using many of the same tools.

Fifth, we turn to where the rubber hits the road - policymaking. Far too many (in fact almost all) critiques of neo-conservatism from both left and right fail to say what they would put in its place at this level. As we all discovered after 9/11, the neocons won because a bad plan beat no plan at all; while realists and Wilsonians (in America and Europe alike) searched for esoteric answers, the neocons were making concrete, practical (and utterly disastrous) policy proposals. We must never let that happen again.

So Anatol Lieven and I conclude by talking about what an ethical realist strategy would mean for American polices toward Russia, China, the war on terror, the greater middle east, and trade and development. But, in line with the critics on the American right, we do this not because we hate America, but because we love it. Ethical realism, adopted by committed, brave people on both left and right, sick of the disastrous sameness of so much of recent American foreign policy, at last provides a real alternative.

The balance of forces on the right

There is no doubt that conventional wisdom is at least partially right: the second Bush term is far less dominated by neo-conservatives than the first. In the first term, neocons around deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz sided with vice-president Dick Cheney's office to overrule the realist Colin Powell at the state department (with Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor, frantically trying to keep everyone singing from the same hymnal); by contrast, the second term has been far more of an evenly matched battle.

A more powerful (and still realist) state department, with Rice's deputy secretary Robert Zoellick (until his resignation) under-secretary Nicholas Burns, have had the momentum. It is the defence department which has seen its bureaucratic stock suffer the most, with Wolfowitz exiled to the land of international organisations; defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld (not a neocon, though he certainly aided and abetted them in the first term) has been forced to answer countless questions about Iraq. Only the vice-president's office, seemingly impervious to outside events, continues to rival state's dominance (with Stephen Hadley as national-security advisor making the trains run on time but little else). So if the first term can be summed up as dominated by the neo-conservatives, the second is much more of a balance of power.

This does matter, but the fact remains that while the administration has grown more cautious after disaster in Iraq, it has certainly not grown much wiser - no insider talks about abandoning what is routinely called the "freedom project", or snarls slightly less at Russia (perhaps genuine engagement, what we used to call diplomacy, is called for here?), or reveals qualms about making the false link between Saddam and al-Qaida, a link that only became real after American actions in Iraq.

That is, the rhetoric is smarter. For example, the administration (unlike in the first term) now talks as though elections are not a panacea for all that ails undemocratic states. Sensibly, they propose that the institutions bolstering the development of democracy should be a priority (rule of law, pluralism, a free press, an independent judiciary) - without ever saying how and where this can be done, why it should be done, what the local building blocs are, or how to make the people directly involved stakeholders in this process.

In other words, having been burned by their simplistic approach to democracy in the first term, the administration has adapted its rhetoric to acknowledge that the problem might just be a little more complicated than it had earlier let on. However, the absence of a programmatic strategy coupled with a continued recitation of the "freedom agenda" mantra reveal the fact that in reality the Bush White House has not changed its beliefs or policies very much. The neo-conservatives are far from dead.

However, things are far better outside the executive branch. The Republican-dominated Supreme Court and Congress, encouraged by the president's dismal showing, have at last rediscovered their backbones. The court, in a courageous decision, struck down the president's justification of having almost limitless powers in wartime, forcing the White House to acknowledge prisoner rights. At the same time, the president ran into trouble over the wiretap programme.

The monumental difficulties experienced by the Bush administration in getting new legislation pertaining to these issues through Congress sometimes obscures the fact that it is not the hapless Democrats but the right - that is, the Republican Party in the persons of Senators McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner - that has questioned interrogation methods which border on torture. If the first corrective to the neocons is the worried and unsympathetic base of the Republican Party, the second (as Jefferson's friend Madison would have understood) is that the other two co-equal branches of government seem to be awakening from a deep sleep.

If the current state of play is a sort of Mexican stand-off, with the neocons in trouble with both the polls and the other branches of government - yet still potent as no other political grouping or ideology (such as ethical realism) has taken its place - it's a situation that is soon to change. It is likely that the Republicans will survive the loss of some seats to retain control of the Senate in November's mid-term elections, though control of the House of Representatives is definitely in play.

The result is far too close to call, but if the Democrats take over the House they will control the power of investigation of the executive branch, and be able to compel the president's staff to testify before them. In other words, they would make life hell for Donald Rumsfeld. But beyond this reality, the Bush administration would enter a Jacques Chirac-like coma for the next two years, with the 2008 presidential campaign beginning almost immediately.

It would then be high time - with no domestic agenda left (remember social security and tax reform?), with Bush's chief allies under intensive, unprecedented congressional scrutiny, with Iraq in a shambles, Iran the dominant power in the Gulf, radical Islam more popular than ever, the North Korean situation no nearer to a solution than in January 2001, and Osama bin Laden still successfully hiding - for non-utopian Republicans to rise up and denounce this unfriendly neo-conservative takeover of the party.

The corrective powers of the American republic have proved marvellous over the decades, and are in many ways the envy of the world. But the world today is simply too serious and too dangerous a place for us not to put our heads above the parapet any longer. If we are going to preach about moral courage, now is the time to show some.

There is another, slightly more far-fetched but not implausible reason that it is time for the right to rise up against the neo-conservatives. Part of being a Burkean is gloomily relishing worst-case scenarios. There is one here. I must stress I do not think it likely, but that is not to say it is impossible to imagine. A mortally wounded Bush administration - having lost the House, with the war in Iraq grinding on in a sort of Lebanon of the 1980s stage, with no elections left to worry about - may go for broke: in particular, to turn up the pressure on Iran, hoping that a miscalculation by Tehran will once again rally world (and American) opinion to its side for the tough military action some neo-conservatives such as the fantasist Michael Ledeen have been wanting to indulge in for many years.

To be fair, I hear this kind of thing more in Europe, and more from people who do not know all that much about American politics (and certainly know almost nothing about Americans right of Edward Kennedy). And it is true that a reinvigorated Congress, Supreme Court, and American people may have more than enough clout to put paid to such fantasies. However, I've known these people for the seven or so years I've worked in Washington, and a little voice does occasionally creep into my head: "They will not go gentle into that good night...". To avoid even worse calamities befalling the country, American foreign policy, and the world at large, is the last (and not the least) reason that the American right needs to commence a civil war against those who might act out this scenario.

Our lives, our fortunes...

And so I end where I began, with Thomas Jefferson. While Anatol and I were working on our book we became aware that the political atmosphere in Washington was becoming ever more toxic. Unlike the rest of the world that looks on at the politics of the city with the detachment that comes from not having one's livelihood on the line, we had real world consequences to consider. Nevertheless, we were determined to write our book, as an important intellectual alternative to the disastrous prevailing winds in Washington.

At one particularly low point, we soberly assessed what might happen to us. I replied instinctively, with the words that end our Declaration of Independence: "We pledge our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor." We grinned weakly at each other and left; we have repeated the vow at the end of countless other conversations.

For in the end that was what it was about then, and what it is about now. It is easy to criticise power. It is easy to point out an administration's fallacies and mistakes, from the safety of a tenured chair somewhere, from the perch of a journalist, or from the relative comfort of most think-tanks. But in the end, for all their influence, such people are highly intelligent bystanders, assessing and describing what is going on, without taking a full part in the public arena.

Anatol and I, along with many, many of our friends, have decided to play a more active role, in line with what we think public-policy intellectuals owe their society. In ethical realism, we have updated a noble part of the American tradition, and espouse a philosophy that offers a real and better alternative to what we see around us. That is the first big step.

But the second is just as important, and is ten times harder to do. In the tradition of the founders of this country, a tradition that still gives me succor, we must risk all that we have for the ideas we believe in. It is past time talking, now is the time to act politically. It is time for the right in America to rise up.

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